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Gen McKenzie Interview Transcript with Lolita Baldor, Luis Martinez, and Missy Ryan

Press Operations

July 8, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Capt. Urban General McKenzie, we've got 30 minutes on the record. He's going to start with some opening remarks covering a visit to Iraq today and then it’s over to you for questions.

General McKenzie Good. Good afternoon, everybody. It's been a long day for us. Planes, trains, automobiles, as you would expect. What I thought I'd do is just give you a couple of observations at the very beginning. Then we'll go right into your questions. I went into Iraq today. I had an opportunity to have a good meeting with the prime minister. And he was accompanied by the CHOD [Chief of Defense]. So we had a very good meeting with both of them. The principle thing we covered in our meeting was the importance of the next phase of the strategic dialog between our two countries which is going to occur in late July in DC, coronavirus pending. And I know there are a lot of issues associated with that, but we hope it's going to be a physical face-to-face thing. We'll see how that plays out.

But a key thing that we talked about was, what's the future posture for the U.S.? And we established a good back and forth that whatever the future posture is for us in Iraq and for our NATO and coalition partners as well, it's going to be in collaboration with the government of Iraq.

We all agree that's the case, and we all agree we're going to be focused on finishing the final victory again. So the final final conclusion of the campaign against Daesh, they're no longer holding ground.

We just need to finish the insurgency. I can talk about that a little bit, if you'd like to do that. But the key point was whatever we do going forward is going to be fully coordinated with the government of Iraq.

It is my belief that the government of Iraq recognizes the value that we bring for them in their fight against Daesh. They’re going to want us to stay. My final point is, I congratulate the prime minister on action taken to help protect our forces; we very much appreciate that. It was a good, good meeting. Good dialog, and was my first opportunity to meet him. I found him to be very impressive. And I think he's going to be a good leader for Iraq. So I will pause there and be ready to take your questions.

Lolita Baldor OK, just one quick follow up on what you were just talking about. And then a separate question. There, obviously, was talk a month ago about Iraqis wanting all U.S. troops out of the country. Do you think your assumption is that you moved on beyond that, and that there is room for keeping enough U.S. troops there, as many of you deem necessary? And then, so you can take both at once, I just wanted to ask an Afghanistan question, obviously, on the bounty issue. Can you talk at all about what impact you've seen in Afghanistan of loss in influence and/or payments to the Taliban and whether or not you believe there was any measurable impact in either deaths or injuries to U.S. forces?

General McKenzie Sure. I'll start with the Iraq question. So I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the extreme value that the coalition brings to the fight against Daesh in Iraq. And I believe that going forward, they're going to want us to be with them. Now, look, our posture could get smaller as the Iraqis get better at what they do. But I think that's a matter that's going to be negotiated further in the future of Iraq. 

What you want to do in a counterinsurgency environment is you want the nation that you're working with to get better and take on a larger and larger share of the task. That's actually what's happening with the Iraqis. This is the desirable end outcome that we want. So we're actually very pleased with that. Going forward, I don't know what the long term future is going to be, but I don't sense there's a there's a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I'm pretty confident of that. We'll continue to work with the Iraqi leadership as we go forward. So let me shift gears a little bit and talk about Afghanistan.

I'm very familiar with this material and I'm a theater commander and I've had an opportunity to look at it. I found it very worrisome. I just didn't find that there was a causative link there. It worried me, and we take extreme force protection measures all the time in Afghanistan. Because whether the Russians are paying the Taliban or not, over the past several years, the Taliban have done their level best to carry out operations against us. So nothing has practically changed on the ground in terms of force protection, because we have a very high force protection standard now. And that force protection standard is going to continue in the future. General Miller and I talk frequently about emerging threats. We discuss it and we are all the time evaluating intelligence, re-positioning forces to achieve the best possible posture, nothing has changed in that regard. We are still prepared for the absolute worst anyone could do to us in Afghanistan.

Lolita Baldor Great thanks.

Missy Ryan Hi, General. Nice to talk to you. I wanted to clarify and follow up on your answer about Afghanistan. You're saying that you found it troubling, but you didn't find a causative link. Can you just specify what exactly are you talking about? A causative link in terms of the bounties resulting in American deaths, or causative link in the money that was detected being bounties or resulting in attacks? Can you just clarify that? And then I have a question about Iraq.

General McKenzie Sure the intelligence case wasn't proved to me. It was proved enough to worry me. It wasn't proved enough that I'd take it to a court of law. That's often true in battlefield intelligence. You see a lot of indicators. Many of them are troubling, many of them you act on. But in this case, there just wasn't enough there. I sent the intelligence guys back to continue to dig on it. And I believe they're continuing to dig right now. But I just didn't see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard. 

Missy Ryan So you weren't convinced that the money that was detected resulted in American deaths?

General McKenzie No, I'm not convinced of that. I'm just not. And basically, nobody is more directly concerned about it than myself and Scott Miller. We look at that all the time. But I'm telling you we just we just didn't see it.

Missy Ryan OK. Got it. Thank you. And then my question regarding Iraq is, I wanted to ask you about the raid that occurred recently. There was obviously some blowback against Al-Khadimi. And then the release says all or most of the people have been detained. And I'm just wondering how do you see that and how much can you expect the prime minister to be able to do against some of these Iranian linked militias, given not just their military power, but their political clout in Iraq? And what do you do, specifically? I know that the larger ask is, make sure that there aren't rocket attacks. But what specifically are you asking him to do to make that happen? And what has he agreed to? Thanks

General McKenzie Sure. So, this is actually the responsibility the government of Iraq to assist in our protection. The prime minister realizes that, and the actions that he's taken have been totally aligned with that principle. So we're very glad to see him take those actions. And, yes, they and I do believe they've been successful stopping attacks against us. And this is probably an example of that. Now as to the specifics of how the prosecution is going to go inside the Iraqi judicial system. I'd tell you to talk to the Iraqis about that, because they're going to be the people with the best information on that. Look, we also know that there is pressure just brought on the Iraqis from the Iranians and from the Shia Militia Groups, and that's just a fact of life.

I believe the prime minister is fighting through that. We're going to help him in every way that we can. But it is a difficult process. It's going to require patience as he does it. The bottom line, though, is I'm very glad to see him take the actions that he's taken.

Missy Ryan And the recent raid, did the U.S. have any role in teeing up that raid or assisting with it in any way?

General McKenzie So that was an Iraqi operation, pretty much from soup to nuts. And of course, I can't get in to the exquisite details of intelligence operations. But that was their operation.

Luis Martinez Thanks, Sir, for doing this briefing. Just touching points on what both Lita and Missy have asked with regards to Afghanistan. Was this something new? Or was this something that had been out there for quite some time even before you arrived? This notion of Russian involvement. I mean, we've seen these reports that maybe even as far back as 2018 or early 2019 that this information was known. Can you just give us some clarity on that?

And then also in your talks with the Iraqis, do you get the sense that they want this to be an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq. And do you favor that?

General McKenzie Sure. So let me talk about Afghanistan first. Look, as you know, because you're very familiar with Afghanistan, there is a universe of intelligence reporting out there about all kinds of bad actors. And you just sort through it. Some of it is compelling, some of it isn’t. Some of it is troubling, but not proven. Some of it is stray voltage and you sort through all those things. Reports of this nature have been out there for a while, but with very, very low levels of authenticity about them. And so you just continue to plod through them and sort them as you go forward.

So let me just talk about your question about Iraq. It is my judgment, just based on what I've seen today talking to the prime minister, that they value very much the United States, NATO and the coalition presence in in Iraq. They very much value that. And they think it's important for them to be able to finish the fight against Daesh and be able to fully assert their sovereignty. I believe they think it's a good thing, but they're going to have to. And so working with them, we're going to have to decide what the appropriate force level is in the future to be able to do that. The force level needs to be smaller and we'll have to make it be smaller in the future, consistent with the requirements of the government of Iraq and what we and our coalition and NATO partners are going to be willing and able to do. And so that's sort of the way I think we'll go forward.

What do I think about it? Certainly we need some form of presence in Iraq. I don't know if it needs to be as big as it is now, because ultimately that's going to be a political, not a military decision. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome, and value what we do for them now.

Luis Martinez Thank you and can I just follow up on the Afghanistan information.

General McKenzie Sure.

Luis Martinez [It sounds like you had low confidence in previous intelligence. Do you have higher confidence level in the new information, or did that still not convince you?]

General McKenzie Yeah. I actually I appreciate you asking the question, but I won't be able to get into any more detail on it than that. I look at a lot of battlefield intelligence. I sort through massive amounts of it with varying degrees of credibility and ultimately, informed by the intelligence community. We make judgments on that. So that's about as much as I can tell you on that.

Luis Martinez Thank You.

Lolita Baldor General, this is Lita. Can I follow up a little bit on that with you? Can you talk some more broadly about what Russian influence you actually do see in Afghanistan? I think we talked to you before about providing weapons and things like that.

Has their level of participation in Afghanistan increased, decreased, or is it about the same? And then secondarily, you reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to about 8,600. So there's a lot of talk about further reductions. What's your comfort level with further reductions of U.S. forces there? And do you see it maybe going in half or more or less than that by the end of this year? Or is it still something you're not decided yet about?

General McKenzie Sure. So, when you think about the Russians in Afghanistan, you need to remember, first and foremost, that they suffered a humiliating defeat there a few decades ago. And I think that weighs on the Russian psyche as they as they think about Afghanistan. Secondly, I think the Russians have genuine concern about the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan up north. So they're very worried about that. And that's probably a legitimate concern of theirs. Added to that, I think the Russians generally want to have the opportunity to throw sand in our gears when they can and make life uncomfortable for us. So there are a variety of competing sort of impulses that are active there when the Russians think about Afghanistan. Sometimes one of those is more nuanced than another. But we should always remember, the Russians are not our friends. They are not our friends. And they are not our friends in Afghanistan. And they do not wish us well. And we just need to remember that at all times when we evaluate that intelligence. So you asked about going below mid-8,000. So any recommendations I'd make on that would be based on conditions in the country.

And those are not going to be ultimately military decisions. Those decisions about end strength are going to be political decisions. But I've had the opportunity to give advice and it has been listened to up to this point. I think that will be continued in the future, along with General Miller and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We'll have an opportunity to weigh in on this. My approach, though, is look at the conditions and look at the agreement that we've got. Do the conditions indicate that we can that we can get smaller? Because inter-Afghan dialogs are going on, there's a reduction in violence. The Taliban are living up to their side of the equation. All of those things, are they happening?

You've heard me say this before in a number of media forms, we don't have to like the Taliban. We don't have to believe the Taliban. We need to observe what the Taliban are actually doing. And that will tell us where we want to go. So recommendations I would make about further withdrawals would just be based on what it what's going to be required to protect our core interests there. And our core interest in Afghanistan is preventing the development of attacks against the United States coming from ungoverned areas, from ISIS, or from al-Qaeda.

Missy Ryan I think we are sort of building on each others' questions. But I think I heard you say, and I don't know if it was the MEI thing or the Aspen Institute thing, but that you believe that conditions have not been met yet to be able to go below 8,600. Is that correct?

General McKenzie What I think I said was conditions haven't been met yet to go to zero. Yet. What are those conditions? To me, it would be a significant reduction in violence, an Afghan government that is committed to preventing the harboring of either al-Qaeda or ISIS. Those are the conditions that come out to me where I'd be comfortable talking about then a very, very significantly lower force level in the country. And if the government's committed to those things and if they can demonstrate that, then certainly it would be very easy to foresee a future with a very low presence there. And we'll just have to see how that develops. There is still time for those things to happen, although time is not limitless.

Missy Ryan OK. And then I just have two follow ups regarding Iraq. So can you just give us any clarity on your comment that the overall decision on the future American presence will be a political decision by the U.S., then by the Iraqis. But, given the expectation that there'll be some sort of decrease, but hopefully some continued presence, can you give us an idea of what you think from a military perspective would be required in a continued presence? I mean, are we talking about like an advising and institutional support mission and some sort of special operator presence? Or are we just talking about something that could go down like what we saw between 2011, 2014 during the OSDI period? Can you give us an idea of that and then the follow-on dichotomy? I know that you said that you were encouraged by what he's done. Are you worried, though, that he could step too far and sort of jeopardize his ability to govern by taking too dramatic action against the forces that are powerful in his country?

General McKenzie Let me take the second question first. Yes. I mean, look, he is in a very difficult position. And he's a very brave man. I think he's a very astute Iraqi leader who actually, I think, values the sovereignty of this nation, a very high level. And I appreciate that because I have the same view as an American. I think he's negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him. And he's just got to kind of find his way, which means we're going to have less than perfect solutions, which is nothing new in Iraq. But generally, I'm a glass half full guy, when I look at the prime minister and what he's doing. So I don't want to discuss specific numbers going forward in in Iraq, Missy. But what I would tell you is that we will look at the mission that we've got. And right now, we're no longer accompanying conventional units. Now, we were off that mission. We think there's a role for us to assist in training. There's a role for us to assist in institutional capacity building. Our NATO partners in the NATO mission to Iraq will take on a significant amount of ministerial work in that regard. We will probably do more with them as operations simply because of the exquisite nature of those of those operations. But at the same time, eventually we'll look at we'll look to right size that. So actually, I feel pretty confidently that we're going to have a good substantive dialogue with the government of Iraq about what their requirements are. And I think we're going to be able to arrive at something that meets both our needs.

Missy Ryan OK, thanks.

Luis Martinez Sir, can I ask you, what are your thoughts about the prime minister's relationship with Iran? Obviously the militia is still key players. But you spoke just now about his key his goal of maintaining sovereignty and that's important to him, but he must have to keep his eye on Iran, doesn't he? And how far do you?

General McKenzie Well sure it's a neighboring country. There's significant economic, cultural, and other interactions between the two of them. And so I think we would be naïve if we didn't think he's going to have to take Iran into account and he's going to have to have dealings with Iran. I would expect that. And I think that it would be unreasonable to not expect that.

Luis Martinez But at the same time, I mean, doesn't that mean that he just can't, he won't, be able to control those PMFs that have sworn allegiance to Iran? I mean, how did he bring them in?

General McKenzie I think over time his intent is to move in that direction. I think he's going to require patience on our part. It's going to require understanding at the same time. On the other side of the coin is we're not going to be able to tolerate attacks against us or our coalition partners from those groups. The prime minister knows that as well. Look, I don't want to minimize the difficulty of the role that he's got. It is a uniquely difficult and demanding role to be the prime minister of Iraq right now. And I just think he's off to a pretty good start under very tough and trying conditions.

Luis Martinez And last one here on recent rocket attacks, or attempted rocket attacks are you engaged with countermeasures that were sent into Iraq?

General McKenzie Yes, we have. And yes, we have recently against the last rockets that were fired at the embassy compound here in Baghdad, we did engage. I am not certain if a rocket hit the embassy, I could not tell you exactly what the effect of it was. But we did engage.

Luis Martinez And that's the land version of the CIWS right?

General McKenzie I'm sorry say again.

Luis Martinez Sir, I think it is called the C-Ram is that correct?

General McKenzie Yes it is called the C-RAM. No, sorry. I just couldn’t hear it. It’s a serious gun system, fires automatically. We use it in a couple of places across the theater. It is generally very effective.

Luis Martinez [And that's what we engaged with them.

General McKenzie That is correct.

Luis Martinez Thank you.

Lolita Baldor And General can I just follow up quickly on that? We talked a lot about preventive measures when we were with you earlier this year. And do you believe you've gotten everything into Iraq that you believe necessary to protect the forces there? And then what's your view on the Turkish incursions into northern Iraq? Did you talk about that?

General McKenzie Sure. So let me just talk about force protection measures. Look we constantly seek to improve. We run up some great capabilities. There's no commander alive that wouldn't always want more. But given what we have available and the nature of the threats, I think we're in a pretty good place now. But we constantly evaluate the threats and are ready to reposition as required to adjust. It is a constant battle, a plus and minus out there. They come up with something. We have a countermeasure and vice versa. So we're always we're always in that dynamic equation with them. But I think that we're in a good place now. We'll continue to evaluate going forward.

For the Turks up north, recognizing Turkey's legitimate security concerns. It's never a good idea to go into a neighboring country, even if it's for a very good reason. As you know, as they would tell you, they've done here. The prime minister and I did not have the opportunity to have that discussion today.

Missy Ryan And I have two Iran related questions. The first one is there is a news report the other day that Qasem Soleimani's successor, Ghaani, was in Syria. Have you noticed any changes in Iran's dealings with the Quds Force or Iran's dealings with external militias in the last few months since he has sort of come on board and taken a consolidated position as the new commander? And then the bigger picture question is, we talked a lot during the trip in January and February about reestablishing deterrence following the events of December and early January, maybe contested deterrence, and I just wondered how you would characterize the stage that the U.S. and the US military is in now vis a vis Iran strategically across the region? You know, we have continued economic and political pressure on Iran, but at the same time, you got some of the military assets that were ported to the region after those events are not there anymore. And I just wondered if you could characterize how you see that overall situation.

General McKenzie Sure. I think they miss Qasem Soleimani. I think over a period of decades, he reached a unique position in Iranian planning, in Iranian execution, and in Iranian leadership. And the fact that he is gone, they have not been able to fill his role. I'm not certain they're ever going to fill the role that he played. I think it still has an effect on them and they're not as coordinated as they once were, and there's a number of things they don't do as well as they once used to do. And I don't know that anyone's going to come along to replace him - just my judgment. The second thing is, yes, I still assess that we are in a period of contested deterrence. And as you've heard me say before, the mission of United States Central Command is while the maximum pressure campaign continues, the mission of U.S. Central Command is to deter the Iranians from believing they can strike back either overtly or covertly against us or our partners and coalition friends in the region in order to destabilize and reset the rules of that of that maximum pressure campaign. We want to make sure it's clear to them, evident to them, that in the mind of the opponent, deterrence is a cognitive process, recognizing the object you want is not worth the potential risk to what you hold dear to go after it. And I think we're still we're still doing that right now. But as you know, I called a contested deterrence because it's not pure. There are still activities going on around the edges. Here in Iraq you occasionally see the rocket attacks on our forces. I think Iran is still desires to pursue a vision of the United States leaving the region. And I believe for a while early this year, they felt they had a political track to do that in Iraq. I don't think they see that track is available to them anymore. And as a result, they're sort of assessing where they're going to go. But I think they are still in the process of thinking about how they proceed from the events of January. And I don't think that has been fully digested in their national security decision making process. And they've come out with a way forward, to be honest with you.

Missy Ryan OK. And just the fact that some of the assets that you were able to procure in the aftermath of that have been deployed elsewhere, did that that weaken the deterrence at all?

General McKenzie Well, we've still got a lot of stuff here. And I would tell you, the combatant commander cannot have the perspective that you're the only show in town. You know, there are other places where we need to put some of this material. And so I recognize that. You cannot afford to be completely focused on what you do. You have to recognize the United States has global requirements and those global requirements have to be sourced. So you might not get as much as you want. And I participate very vigorously in those debates when we talk about allocating forces. But when it's all said and done, recognize that the United States is a global power and we have requirements all around that we've got to fill. So I accept that and we'll go forward with what we've got, knowing that we can bring stuff back in pretty quickly should it be necessary. OK.

Missy Ryan Thanks.

Luis Martinez As you're aware, there have been these mysterious explosions inside Iran. Have the explosions--in your mind are they coincidental? Do you think that something's up? And what are the some of the capabilities that have been damaged as a result of these explosions?

General McKenzie Yeah, that's one. Luis, I'm going to leave that one alone. The Iranians--they're talking a lot about it. I just listen to what the Iranians say on that. Really, Luis, I got nothing more on that one.

Luis Martinez Thank you, sir. About the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. What do you think is going to happen there with regard to the numbers and the capabilities? Do you see continuing maintaining that for the foreseeable future, will that become an enduring mission as well, or is that just going to be conditions based?

General McKenzie I think I would argue that we need to keep a presence there. Again, we'll have to go back and take a look at it. It'll be a discussion I have with the Secretary of Defense. And will be a discussion we also have with our Saudi partners, as we take a look at what we're going to keep there and under what conditions we're going to keep it. So, we look at what represents a significant amount of resources for the United States. I think it does good things. But those are essentially decisions that are yet ahead of us. And I have a position on it, but I wouldn't care to develop it further. Right now, I'd like to continue these discussions and sort of see where it goes.

Luis Martinez Thank you.

General McKenzie OK, listen. Thanks, guys. I appreciate it. Like I said, it's been a long day. I just got off an airplane and, it's a long haul around the theater. So thanks for taking the call. Glad to talk to you and Bill will follow up with anything. You'll have a great day. OK.